As life becomes more and more technology-based, it seems that fewer and fewer young people take an active interest in reading — one of life’s greatest pleasures. Perhaps a good book — or a few — might be more cumbersome than a smart phone; and to some minds the latest viral YouTube video might be more entertaining than any well-written story. But because the classics, being in the public domain, have become available to read online for free, as far as I am concerned there is NO EXCUSE for not having a good look. Truth be told, this particular development is indeed advantageous to college students majoring in Literature, Philosophy or Political Science, because they can just dial up these works on the cloud wherever and whenever they want.
Here, in no particular order, is a quick selection of five influential authors whose work has become available online.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) The son of a clergyman, Alfred Tennyson was born into a talented but dysfunctional family replete with substance abuse and mental health problems. He had a difficult relationship with his father, who was mentally unstable and frequently took his disappointments out on the family. Occasionally, young Alfred would spend his nights wandering the beach along the east coast of Great Britain near his native Somersby calling his first name out at the top of his lungs; a primal reflection of his desire to find himself. A more productive outlet proved to be poetry, in which he indulged to escape from his family problems. Not surprisingly, recurring themes in Tennyson’s work are madness, murder, avarice, miserliness, social climbing, marriages arranged for profit instead of love, and estrangements between families and friends. In fact, one oft quoted line from his elegiac poem “In Memoriam A.H.H.” has become a standard line of consolation for the heartbroken: “Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all.”
He was first published in an anthology at seventeen years old, and by 1850 was appointed Poet Laureate of Great Britain, a title he held until his death in 1892. This honor would cement a legacy that continues to the present day – in 1983, his poem “The Charge Of The Light Brigade,” immortalizing a tragic scene from the Crimean War (1853-1856), inspired Iron Maiden’s hit single “The Trooper.”
Suggested Works: “In the Valley of Cauteretz,” “Break, Break, Break,” “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” “Tears, Idle Tears,” “Crossing the Bar,” “In Memoriam A.H.H.”
François de La Rochefoucauld, (1613-1680) Born into an upper class Parisian family, François de La Rochefoucauld joined the French army at sixteen, led plots against Cardinal Richelieu (which resulted in a stint in the Bastille) and served in the French Civil War from 1648 until a series of major injuries led to his retirement in 1653. Shortly afterward, he became part of a group of intellectual scholars based in Paris. During this time, he began to compose a series of concise observational statements that argue the thesis that all human actions are reducible to the motive of self-interest, perhaps the most famous of which being the musing that “Nos vertus ne sont, le plus souvent, que de vices déguisés (Our virtues are most frequently but vices in disguise).” By 1665, these musings were collected and published as his most famous work, Reflexions ou Sentences et Maximes Morales, commonly known as The Maxims.
Although La Rouchefoucauld died in poverty, he was frequently discussed by 19th-century French literary critics, and was a leading influence on the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche in terms of ethical stance and writing style.
Suggested Works: The Maxims.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) Little is actually known about William Shakespeare. Although he was born into a well-to-do family in Warwickshire, very few records of his private life exist. There also has been much speculation and conjecture about his physical appearance, his sexual orientation, his religious faith and whether or not he was in fact the author of the plays to which he is credited. In fact, Romeo And Juliet, which ranks alongside Hamlet as his most-quoted and most-performed play was inspired from an old Italian tale first translated into verse by Arthur Brooke in 1562. Perhaps the reasons why Shakespeare received the lion’s share of the glory are because he did much to expand the plot, and also because of his distinctive use of iambic pentameter, a metrical line in which each line has five feet consisting of two syllables each, making for a particularly pleasing rhythm.
Although Shakespeare earned considerable respect for his work during his lifetime, his legacy began to grow exponentially from the nineteenth century onward, prompting the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw to coin the term “Bardolatry,” meaning idolatry of the Bard. More recently, several of his plays have been modernized in such contemporary motion pictures as 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming Of The Shrew), Scotland, PA (Macbeth), and A Midsummer Night’s Rave (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
Suggested Works: All of them, particularly Hamlet, Othello, Romeo And Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming Of The Shrew, Twelfth Night, King Lear, Macbeth and The Life And Death Of Richard III.
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) This famous native son of Florence, Italy was perhaps as accomplished as a statesman as he was as a writer. He served as a civil servant of the Florentine Republic, and was instrumental in the development of the Florentine Militia. His literary output was quite prolific and included a number of plays, carnival songs and poetry.
However, his most famous work is The Prince, first publicly printed posthumously in 1532, considered to be one of the first works of modern political philosophy. It is also perhaps one of the most misunderstood literary works. Because the general theme within seems to suggest that people in a position of power are justified in using immoral means to achieve glory and survival, many believe that this work to be a manual for how to be a ruthless despot. The pejorative term “Machiavellian,” which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct,” was coined as a reaction to the content within The Prince. Case in point, in the 2007 documentary film Mr. Untouchable former Harlem heroin kingpin Nicky Barnes, who reacted to his betrayal at the hands of his former associates by turning state’s evidence, resulting in well over one hundred convictions, name-checks Machiavelli as one of his favorite authors. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that The Prince makes some very astute and accurate observations about human nature.
Suggested Works: The Prince.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844-1900) Of all the authors mentioned here, Nietzsche is perhaps the most controversial and misunderstood. Jazz-age child murderers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb killed fourteen-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924, believing (wrongly) that they, as Nietzschean supermen, were above the law and could commit the “perfect crime” with zero impunity. Of course, the truth of the matter was that Nietzsche believed that while morality is fine for the masses, exceptional people should follow their own “inner law,” implying that they were meant to introspectively ask themselves what the best moral course of action was and behave accordingly upon attaining the answer.
Many regard Nietzsche as an anti-Semite, largely because his work was admired by the Nazis, which sullied his reputation in the years following World War II. However, the Nazis merely cherry-picked his ideas, which they themselves barely digested. As a matter of fact, although Nietzsche himself scorned the principles of Judaism and Christianity in equal measure, he condemned anti-Semitism outright in his book On The Genealogy Of Morality and disassociated himself from both his editor Ernst Schmeitzner and his longtime friend, renowned classical composer Richard Wagner, because of their anti-Semitic prejudices.
In actual fact, three other of Nietzsche’s most redeeming values were his championing and high esteem of creative individuals; his belief that tyrants were weak in mind and spirit; and as astutely described in his classic masterpiece Thus Spoke Zarathustra, his notion that reckless and self-indulgent ambition was detrimental to a man’s spirit – “The more he seeketh to rise into the height and light, the more vigorously do his roots struggle earthward, downward, into the dark and deep — into the evil.”
Suggested Works: The Birth Of Tragedy, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good And Evil,